Visiting New York City

The Quintessential Guide to Visiting New York City

Yes—visiting New York City can be intimidating. But the Empire City, the City So Nice They Named It Twice, one of the greatest cities in the world is also a must-see at least once in your life! Our quintessential guide to visiting New York City can help you maximize your experience of the Concrete Jungle so you don’t miss the classic highlights, with a few fun side-trips thrown in for good measure.

Some people have avoided visiting New York City because it feels unsafe, and safety does merit discussion. I’ve been there often enough that it feels comfortable to me. Not relaxed — I don’t let my guard down in any city — but comfortable. I work remotely part time for a nonprofit there, my stepdaughter is a student there, and I’ve taken a few trips there as a tourist since 2012. So I’m somewhat aware of areas that could be risky versus areas that are less so. 

Additionally, being an American citizen, I’m familiar with broad U.S. social norms such as average personal space and behavior in a public place, so I can better discern when something’s off. (I don’t have this same level of experience in other countries, which means I can’t “read the room” as well; visitors to the States also face this disadvantage when visiting New York City or other places in the U.S.) I’ve also lived in big U.S. cities; someone who hasn’t spent time in a major city might not have filters trained to know what you can ignore and what’s worrisome.

I’d recommend first reviewing our safety tips for solo travel, which are applicable with a friend or group as well. You can also begin with a walking tour of New York City; a local guide can answer your specific questions. And The New York Times, among others, offers safety tips for visiting New York City. 

But because of its prominence, history and size, New York is one of the safest cities to visit in the world. So perhaps the more intimidating aspect of visiting is deciding what to do. It truly is the City that Never Sleeps, and a lifelong resident will never see and do it all. Below are the ways I’ve taken a bite of the Big Apple over the course of several visits; start with the hop-on hop-off bus and pick and choose from there. I think you might decide that you want to make multiple trips to NYC to really get to its core.

Things to Do When Visiting New York City

The Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus

I don’t get a penny for recommending this as a phenomenal way to get acquainted with a city, and I urge it anyway. My daughter and I purchased a three-day hop-on, hop-off pass during our first time visiting New York City and wrung every dollar out of our investment.

If nothing else, a hop-on hop-off bus pass is cheap public transportation affording a much better view than the subway. The various lines will get you to all of the major tourist sights and famous districts in New York City, including the ferry to Ellis Island, SoHo, Chelsea, the 9/11 Memorial, Wall Street and even over to Brooklyn. As you go, you’ll gain a sense for the grid that is Manhattan.

But along the way, you’ll enjoy facts and stories from local guides who share insights about what you’re seeing from a personal perspective. Our guide on the leg from Brooklyn back to Manhattan described his memories of the moments after the planes hit the twin towers on 9/11, when the firefighters and police officers from Brooklyn became the next responding units on the scene. His brother was one of them, our guide shared with pride. Today, some buses offer only recorded tours via headsets, but they’re still a deep well of fun facts about what you’re seeing along your route.

The Subway

If average people in New York City aren’t walking, they’re taking the subway. It’s one of the best ways to get around — much faster and easier to navigate than the bus system. It’s gotten even easier recently with the ability to scan Apple Pay at turnstiles to enter. Apple Maps is also one of the best ways to find stations and get around in the subway, in my experience. 

Riding a city’s train system still can be tricky. Most stations serve more than one train and direction, so you have to watch carefully for signs. And it’s natural to worry about crime and grime. But recently the city has changed out lights in the stations to make them brighter and authorized an effort to patrol stations and find better spaces for people who try to live on the trains or in the stations. Read this guide on riding the subway from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) before you go, so you’re as prepared as can be when you arrive and can focus on what’s happening around you.

The view from the Battery. Visiting the Statue of Liberty is a great stop for first timers visiting New York City.
The view from the Battery
At the Battery in Lower Manhattan
At the Battery in Lower Manhattan
The main immigration hall at Ellis Island
It’s powerful to imagine the stories of the people who passed through the main immigration hall at Ellis Island and see the exhibits.

The Statue of Liberty

Yes, it’s one thousand percent worth a visit. I’ve heard people say that it’s not — that you can see it from the shore of Manhattan. But if you go for nothing else, take the ferry. It’s a cheap opportunity to enjoy a million-dollar view of the famous skyline. (Just remember to look around during the ride!)

Yes, Lady Liberty is smaller than you might expect. She’d be dwarfed by most buildings in Manhattan. But there’s something special about seeing her close up and considering what she meant — and still means — to people coming to the United States. What she stands for, buffeted but beautiful.

And please spend some time at the museum on Ellis Island. Trod the very steps that the tired, poor, huddled masses did so long ago. See the spaces where they were quarantined, considered and given a new life…or turned away. Walking the halls that used to echo with a veritable Tower of Babel of languages and absorbing the latent hope and fear that still clings to the air is a sobering experience.

The 9/11 Memorial Pools in New York City

The 9/11 Memorial

The first time that we visited, in 2012, the museum portion of the 9/11 Memorial was incomplete. But the pools were finished, and they glittered in the sun much like the planes that brought down the towers that horrific day in 2001. 

Each is surrounded by low walls inscribed with the names of that day’s victims, though of course we learned that there would be many more in the months and years to follow. Water falls silently over the black granite from all sides; it rendered me breathless as it reminded me of the men and women who leaped from the towers that day and fell silently on the TV screen at the newspaper where I worked then.

Character posing in Times Square in New York City.
Times Square at night is a feast for the senses.

Times Square

Of course you have to see Times Square in all of its wild, tacky, immortalized glory. It’s sheer chaos most times of the day. Costumed characters want you to pay to take photos with them. Tourists are stopped willy-nilly taking their own photos. Lights blink and massive billboards dazzle with frenetic energy. Allow a bit of time to take it all in.

You’ll notice a fairly significant police presence to help ward off those who want to make a notorious name for themselves in such a beloved public place. You’ll notice that the ball that drops on New Year’s Eve is much smaller than you thought it was from TV. You’ll notice that once you get a couple of blocks away, you’d hardly know that Times Square was there. 

Enjoy the spectacle. Perhaps visit the M&M’s store, where candies fall two floors in rainbow hues. Get a hot dog from a street cart. Watch your purse and your person. Buy another pair of better walking shoes if you need them, as I did. After you’ve soaked it up, you’ll likely decide to find faster ways to pass through this area the next time. 

Radio City Music Hall in New York City

Radio City Music Hall

I still haven’t seen a show at Radio City Music Hall. But my daughter and I took the back-stage tour, which was a story in and of itself. One of the Rockettes dancers showed us the costume room, stuffed with feathers, sequins and fluff. We got to experience the venue from the good seats and peek into the green room and the lounge in the basement level. It’s such a storied place; it doesn’t take much imagination to conjure the famous people who’ve trod the same steps.

The Lyric Theatre in New York City
Seeing Harry Potter on Broadway


Go. Broadway is not as out of reach as you might think. There are online sites for discount tickets, as well as lotteries. And it’s hard to beat the magic of a night on Broadway, even from the cheap seats. 

Broadway consists of a number of theaters; all but one are between 41st Street and 54th Street and between Sixth Avenue and Ninth Avenue in Manhattan. You can discover what’s showing during the time you’ll be in NYC by using the Broadway Guide or with a simple Google search.

My daughter and I sat high in the nosebleed section of a small theater on Broadway to see Jim Parsons of “Big Bang Theory” fame star masterfully in “Harvey.” After, when we left the theater, Mia unexpectedly dashed out of sight around the block to the alley out back (much to my terror—she was still a teen). She was delighted to see Parsons exit the theater and to get an autograph. She floated through the rest of our trip.

On a later trip, my guy and my stepdaughter sat in the nosebleed section of a bigger theater on Broadway to see “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.” It was less intimate but more flashy and equally exciting. You really should see a Broadway show when you’re visiting New York City, whatever your budget.

Katz’s Deli

Katz’s Deli is an institution, serving sandwiches stacked too high for a bite since 1888. Mia and I stopped at the no-frills diner to share a famous 30-day cured corned beef and pastrami on rye (we were on a budget!) before a Broadway show.

The Empire State Building

We visited the Empire State Building on a random weeknight, which meant that we were practically alone on the tour. The “World’s Most Famous Building,” the quintessential symbol of Gotham, was begun in 1930 and is believed to be the world’s first 100-plus story building. We were delighted to discover that the lobby was as wonderfully Art Deco as the exterior.

We saw the magnificent view of the City that Never Sleeps in darkness, a billion twinkly lights spilling out at our feet while the lights emanating from the top of the building itself represented the cause or celebration of the day. I plan to go back on a clear day sometime and see the layout of the metropolis and harbor in the light.

Neighborhoods: SoHo, Cheslea, the Flatiron District, Greenwich Village

It’s interesting to hop off of the Hop-On, Hop-Off bus in these different neighborhoods within Manhattan and explore their personalities—their shops and restaurants, and their people. SoHo is the artsy one of the bunch, with glam shopping thrown in; Chelsea is culture and home to the famous Chelsea Market. The Flatiron District offers great architecture and dining, while Greenwich Village is creative, bohemian and beautiful.  

I was waiting outside my stepdaughter Rachel’s dorm building at NYU in the heart of luxurious and quirky Greenwich Village, admiring the architecture, soaking up the spring weather and enjoying the dogs walking by with their owners when a fascinating older woman, a psychoanalyst, stopped to chat. It’s quintessential New York. If the opportunity arises, have a conversation with someone in these neighborhoods.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral

The cornerstone for this Gothic wonder was laid in 1858. It formally opened in 1879 and has been serving parishioners ever since. You can book at tour of the building and grounds, attend a Catholic Mass or simply go inside during the day, without a timed entry or admission fee. (Do check the Mass schedule. You can attend Mass without being Catholic —just skip Communion—but you can’t wander up to the altar during Mass.) The ushers inside are used to people passing through and taking photos.

The Jewish Museum

At equal turns hard-hitting and delightful, the Jewish Museum features art and objects from across the Jewish diaspora. When we visited, the first-floor revolving exhibit featured Marta Minujín, an advocate artist who, among other things, tried to convince McDonalds in the 1970s to participate in a massive hamburger-making exhibit in NYC in which ketchup would be dropped onto sandwiches by helicopter. Her banned book parthenon sparked a lovely and lively discussion about the ludicrousness of the books banned today, prompting museum-goers to discuss their favorites. 

Upstairs, objects that have survived centuries, or survived the Holocaust, are displayed beside modern art in ways that prompt new perspectives. And for native New Yorkers, the exhibit on Coney Island is sure to spark nostalgia. The Jewish Museum is housed in a massive historic mansion on Museum Mile facing Central Park — a sight in its own right.

Saturday is the Jewish Sabbath, when no money can change hands. But a generous grant from The David Berg Foundation makes it free for guests on Saturdays. 

the view from the top level of the Guggenheim in New York City

The Guggenheim

The building housing the Guggenheim Museum is itself a work of art, a bright white spiral on Museum Mile by the legendary Frank Lloyd Wright. Its distinctive shape leads viewers up (or, for those in the know who take the elevator to the top floor and start there, down) alongside snack-sized exhibit spaces on the outer wall. Each mini “gallery” when we were there in February was home to a different Black artist for Black History Month; one to five paintings or other types of installations per gallery, each making a statement about the modern U.S. Black experience.

A small wing near the ground level bears a treasure trove of works by the masters, such as van Gogh, Gaughin, Picasso and more. It too is helpfully arranged in the round, so you can chart a linear (if circular) path without missing a thing.

The Guggenheim allows you to pay what you want for admission after 5 p.m. on Saturdays. It was certainly busy when we visited then, but not infuriatingly so.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Are there words for this monument to human creativity, beauty and history? You could spend a lifetime wandering The Met’s many rooms. When I lived in Chicago, my daughter and I slowly savored the Chicago Art Institute one exquisite gallery at a time over the course of three years; I’m pretty sure we still haven’t seen it all. I spent four days trying to take in the Louvre in Paris, knowing I’d never lay a glance on every painting and artifact but giving it my all nonetheless. The Met is a similar exercise in glorious futility. I love to read well-written placards such as theirs, but we only had four hours.

My personal highlights included the Robert Lehman Collection, designed to feel like his parents’ art-filled 1920s apartment; the displays of Egyptian and Byzantine artifacts so old I could scarcely imagine the humans who held them; and the paintings by the Flemish, French and British masters of the 1800s, who captured a moment of the lives of both rosy cheeked and gaunt children, ladies harboring secret lovers, men longing for greatness…people once vibrant an eras long gone.

A warning: The Met closes promptly. This means the gift shop and restrooms too. Be sure you take care of both kinds of business before closing time. If you use the free coat check, offer the person working there a small kindness by zipping or buttoning your coat just enough that it will stay on the hanger before handing it to them.

Sesame Street character interacting with a child in Central Park

Central Park

So many TV shows and films have been made in Central Park that every grove of trees and mile of path feels oddly familiar, even on a first visit. And yet there is serendipity around every bend. When we strolled in from the south perimeter, past acrobatic break dancers, joggers, parents with strollers, and characters in imaginative personal fashion occupying benches, Mia and I stumbled upon the cast of “Sesame Street” filming a scene complete with actors manning puppets. It felt emblematic of the city — there’s the possibility of drama and delight at any moment.

Whether you walk, run or lie in the sun, spend some time in this emerald jewel while visiting New York City. It’s precious not only to tourists, but to residents, who fill its vignettes — a mossy bridge overlooking a small stone plaza, a lamp-lined path wrapped around the reservoir fronting a skyline view, or a quiet bit of shade under giant leafy trees. The people-watching is epic, and nature is a balm for the edges of a visitor’s spirit frayed by the pace of the city that never sleeps.

Rockefeller Plaza by night

Rockefeller Center

I’m a huge fan of “30 Rock,” so the Tour at NBC Studios is still high on my list of things to do when visiting New York City. I’d also like to take the Rockefeller Center tour; and, because I don’t have an issue with heights, I’d love to visit the Top of the Rock and try the Beam experience — sitting on a steel construction beam 69 stories over the city. 

But thus far, I’ve simply admired the plaza in summer and winter, dining nearby, taking photos and watching the ice skaters. Rockefeller Center is a visual icon — at a minimum, go see it. 

The Strand Book Store

This may be a more “in the know” stop, but for a bibliophile, the main location of the historic Strand Book Store on Broadway is a bit of nirvana in the middle of Manhattan. The Strand has more than 2.5 million new, used and rare books, with enticing carts outside holding treasures waiting to be unearthed for just a couple of dollars. (I found a like-new copy of Michelle Obama’s Becoming.) You can even buy Books by the Foot! Just remember that you have to bring them home.

The Museum of Ice Cream

Also not classic New York, but here’s the scoop: This confection of a location is one of the most wholesome things to do in New York City, It’s pink and sweet with an experiential bent. Enter at the glitter vinyl rope, through the pop-music and glitter filled gift shop and lobby and get the intro in the waffle cone room. Give yourself an ice cream-related nickname and head to the first tasting counter, where you’ll get a signature pink cone covered in sprinkles.

From there, you’ll pass through themed rooms with swinging pink bananas, an ice cream subway, nesting doors, disco balls, sweet conversation-starters, games and more samples, from a fudgy cone in a nightclub-styled ice cream parlor to cotton candy and a pool of plastic sprinkles. 

Rest assured: You can indulge as much as you want — thirds on scoops and swirls are swell! — and there is always someone wiping and mopping up the sticky. There are lots of kids, but there are a fair number of adults acting like kids too. We spent about two hours. My taste buds were happy, and my tummy survived.


It’s endless. You could spend a lifetime in the city and never experience all the things to do while visiting New York City. (It’s one of the aspects of the Big Apple that I love most.) An example:

My daughter and I had a small but unknown quantity of time to spend before meeting my stepdaughter after her class at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in Lower Manhattan, where Rachel is studying film. We were wandering when Mia spotted Great Jones Distilling Co. Mia worked in a speakeasy for a while, so she was curious. We peeked in, confirmed they were open, and sat at a swanky bar upstairs sipping our way through a whiskey tasting alongside people speaking languages from afar. We spotted the same spirit on the menu when we were ordering cocktails at a speakeasy on the Upper East Side that evening, and it was a pretty dope way to spend 20 minutes. 

Later that evening, we three bibliophiles perused the stalls of used books outside the Strand, Manhattan’s famous independent bookstore founded in 1927 on Fourth Avenue — what was then called “Book Row.” We found some $3 and $5 treasures, then browsed the three floors indoors, where the Strand carries more than 2.5 million used, new and rare books. 

Even later that same evening, we marveled at the clever bags and shoes perched on the shelves of the Kate Spade store next to Rockefeller Plaza. The people working there were warm and welcoming, despite the fact that we only came to gawk and dream at flats made to look like taxi cabs, a handbag bejeweled like a pizza box (complete with shakers for red pepper sequins and faux parmesan), shoes with New York snow globes in the heels and a little bag fashioned after a frog.

Whatever your interests, there’s a serendipitous discovery awaiting you on the streets of New York City. Give yourself some time to see what they deliver to you.

Although we strive to provide the most current information, bars, restaurants and attractions mentioned may close at any time, operate with a limited menu or reduced hours, or have takeout options only. We recommend checking individual websites for operating hours and updates before visiting.

The views expressed on this website represent the opinions of the authors; we encourage you to form your own opinions and confirm any facts.

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